In some ways, leadership skills are timeless. With demonstrated achievements leading people in different efforts and in different circumstances, you could pluck plenty of leaders from the pages of history and place that at the helm of companies in the Fortune 500, or otherwise see them becoming government leaders or heading up global aid agencies.
The qualities that have allowed them and others to step up and take charge in every human endeavor over the millennia are largely the same ones used today:
But every once in a while, something new comes up that demands an entirely original kind of skill, something the world has never seen before, in order to be a successful leader.
That’s exactly what is happening today with the explosion of remote work and virtual organizations around the world.
The sudden rise of entirely new forms of communication and coordination in human affairs has created completely new leadership skill demands in today’s world.
For these kinds of organizations, without offices to roam around, without a conference room to gather in, and with almost no direct personal contact between staff, entirely new kinds of leadership traits are required. It’s not enough to have a firm handshake, a warm smile, or a quiet word of advice to offer over someone’s shoulder as they take on a tough project.
Instead, leaders in virtual organizations have to go the extra mile to get to know their staff, make those connections, and use them to inspire and motivate.
How Key Leadership Skills Shift for Leaders in Virtual Organizations
Virtual organizations are older than you think. But they never really became widespread or mainstream until the COVID-19 pandemic came calling in 2020.
When public health officials called for the closure of conventional office spaces wherever business could be conducted remotely, suddenly a lot of organizations found that they already had the tools in place for a virtual team. With most of their data and work product in the cloud, there was no practical difference having workers connecting from home instead of their desk.
Innovation in Virtual Organization Leadership Has Emerged in Unlikely Places
People don’t think of Big Blue as an innovator anymore. The classic IBM employee for decades matched the dress code instituted in the 1920s: dark suit, white shirt, striped tie. Even while Microsoft was eating their lunch in the 1980s and 1990s, IBM stuck stubbornly to its formula for complex, business-oriented, process-heavy systems.
But the company didn’t become the juggernaut that dominated American computing for decades by being stodgy. IBM was one of the first companies to adopt an equal opportunity employment policy, offer group life insurance, survivor benefits, and training for women and the disabled. And it was also one of the first companies to adopt large-scale remote work policies.
As early as the 1980s, inflexible ol’ IBM was putting terminals in the homes of employees and conducting departmental meetings by teleconference.
By 2009, when even hot new internet startups were afraid to go completely virtual, nearly half of IBM’s more than 380,000 global employees were working from home. In doing so, the company forged policies and techniques for successful virtual organizations that remain case studies today.
But that didn’t mean the shift to virtual work was easy. Although the technical issues could be overcome with tools such as Zoom and Google Drive, a lot of the efficiency and innovation didn’t come from simple software tools. It came from effective corporate leadership managing teams, coordinating efforts, and inspiring new ideas.
Although business boomed in many sectors through the pandemic, those challenges still exist in many companies. Yet calls to return to the office have drawn little excitement in a tight labor market. Leaders who can unlock the secrets to success for virtual organizations will be in high demand for decades to come.
Developing Skills for Leading Virtual Organizations Is an Evolving Process
So exactly what sort of skills does it take to lead people working in virtual organizations? To some degree, that’s an issue that is still being solved… and you may be just the one to help come up with the answers.
For starters, virtual organizational leaders have to be well-versed in using the technologies that tie their teams together. Fumbling around trying to get an MS Teams meeting started isn’t a way to inspire confidence or motivation in anyone. You have to understand the toolset and how to use it to connect to your staff.
Virtual leaders also have to make the extra effort it takes to really connect with their team without the typical crutches of interpersonal interaction and observation. You’re not going to bond with Joe the AP guy over the model rocket hobby he shares with his kids when you can’t notice the photos of them on his desk. You have to find new ways to connect and support staff.
You have a chance to break new ground in developing the textbooks for virtual leaders of tomorrow by taking charge in a virtual organization today.
Conflict resolution and mediation also take on new and different kinds of demands in virtual organizations. Minor misunderstandings through mistakes and misinterpretations grow and fester quickly. Strong virtual leaders need ways to get out in front of such problems and keep relationships intact.
Studies have shown that virtual organizations need leaders who are able to:
All of it demands a new skillset; like so many leadership skills, the best way to absorb it demands an advanced college education.
Finding Degrees To Develop Your Virtual Organization Leadership Skills
As you might guess, there aren’t a lot of options available in American universities for organizational leadership training in virtual organization management. The field is new, and academic programs are still being developed to teach it effectively.
But together with the growing body of research and academic interest, you can find a handful of programs to tap into to grow your own expertise in this red-hot area. For the most part, it exists only at the graduate level today. That means programs like a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership, Management of Virtual Organizations specialization, or a Master of Business Administration, Management of Virtual Organizations concentration can be your best bet.
There may also be programs that offer even further specialization in leadership skills for virtual organizations within a specific career field, like a Master of Public Administration with a specialization in Management of Virtual Organizations.
The technology world, naturally, has been a frontrunner in the creation and development of the virtual organization, so you will also find many of the skills needed for leading them come stock in programs like a Master of Science in Technology and Organizational Leadership.
Certificates Offer a Faster, Less Intensive Way To Build Virtual Organization Leadership Skills
As is often the case in very new areas of academic interest, you’re more likely to find certificate programs dealing in virtual organization leadership than full degree programs. You can choose from certificates at both the post-secondary and graduate levels, including:
These programs last only a few months and have only a handful of classes at best. But they have a far lower cost than full degrees and offer a laser focus on the specifics of leading virtual organizations. That makes them a great option for experienced executives with traditional workplace leadership skills who just need a smash course in the new realities of remote and hybrid workplaces.
Online Options May Be the Most Appropriate Choice for Virtual Leadership Learning
If ever there was a perfect fit for online degree programs, training to become a virtual leadership virtuoso might be it.
After all, there’s nothing like experiencing the same sort of environment you will be practicing in while you learn your trade. So participating in the same sort of virtual activities, demanding accountability, clear communication, and a command of technology, may be the best preparation for leading a virtual organization.
But online classes come with many other advantages as well. With only a handful of virtual leadership programs in the country, choosing an online option can allow you to attend one without having to relocate several states away.
By taking advantage of one of the great benefits of virtual coursework, the ability to shift classes to any time of day that is most convenient, you can also fit them in around the day-to-day demands in your life. No more worrying about being late to pick up the kids from soccer practice because class got out late—you choose when and how to stream lectures, finish assignments, and chat with fellow students.
An Evolving Curriculum Teaches You the Cutting Edge Practices of Virtual Leaders Today
Developing virtual organization leadership skills demands all the same essentials that leaders use in every other kind of organization today, and as they have throughout history. You still have to be a skillful strategist, planner, and communicator. You still need creativity and innovative problem-solving skills.
So you’ll get the same basic roster of coursework in any of these degrees as you would in any leadership program in the field. But you’ll find that some of them take on new characteristics and come with new angles that help build your skillset in applying those general leadership abilities to the specific needs of virtual organizations.
That will include coursework in areas such as:
Virtual Leadership and Team Management
A significant part of being an effective leader in the virtual workplace is being a functional manager. Mastering the tools and techniques of keeping a remote workforce in sync and in touch isn’t a trivial issue. These classes will walk you through some of the high-tech options for managing your virtual team and exercising leadership functions like maintaining communications, tracking outcomes, and keeping quality and expectations aligned.
Teambuilding is a traditional leadership skill required to take all the diverse perspectives and talents of your staff and meld them together into an effective and efficient machine pursuing the same goals. But you’re not going to be doing trust fall exercises in a remote workplace—new techniques for team building and cohesion are needed, and these courses will teach you how to use them.
Organizational Behavior in a Remote Workforce
Organizational behavior classes are old news in every OL degree program. But the psychology and social prompts in a virtual organization are very different from the traditional workplace environment. So you’ll get an entirely different perspective on the psychology of organizational behavior in distributed teams, covering everything from attribution effects to disconnection and isolation.
Ethics and Analysis for Virtual Organizations
A virtual workforce is an online workforce. From phones to laptops, they are going to be working on devices and often with software that was pretty much designed for monitoring. Moreover, leaders in the virtual environment have to engage in some sort of electronic monitoring to perform the simple oversight functions that supervision requires. It’s an area full of ethical landmines for responsible leaders, and these courses will help walk you through them without detonating any massive moral or legal explosions.
These degrees also come with a useful slate of elective options that cover many of the unusual, but predictable challenges that confront leaders of virtual organizations. You can use these classes to answer questions that come up in your own virtual org or to prepare yourself for handling a specific kind of remote workforce in the future. They can include topics like:
At advanced levels of study, such as master’s degree programs, you can also expect to get some hands-on, experiential learning, as well. Through internship placements or cooperative projects with private companies, you will get a chance to see how effective leadership works in current virtual organizations.
You may also have a chance to participate in research projects with your professors in this exciting area of new leadership developments. And your capstone project or thesis will push you to develop your own new ideas about leadership in virtual organizations, making an impact in the field before you even graduate.
No matter what industry you plan to join, there is a good chance that some parts of your future are going to be virtual. To be a leader in that future, developing skills that reflect that reality will be an essential part of your training.